Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Hosting a dinner for our Among Friends stewardship campaign was a great experience, so much so that I’d like to do it again. Next year. Because it also took a great deal of effort. I suggested doing these dinners knowing that I would have to host one, and I knew it would be a lot of work. What I didn’t think about was how it would feel to issue an open invitation to my home. Even though my potential guests were limited to members of St. John’s, and there’s no one in the parish I would have turned away, or even wanted to, still, the feeling of being out of control of who could be in my house was a little uncomfortable.
It’s a good thing I didn’t live in the ancient middle east, where having a home meant that you had to provide hospitality to anyone, friend or stranger, on very short notice. So while it sounds strange to us that Jesus would invite himself into the home of a man who had never even spoken to him, that sort of thing was almost normal.
Jesus’s claiming hospitality is the only normal thing in this story. A rabbi like Jesus was expected to observe Jewish law, including the laws of ritual purity, and those forbade eating with sinners. And the crowd was eager to point that out, as if Jesus didn’t know who Zacchaeus was. But Jesus had already called him by name.
And what a name. The name Zacchaeus literally means, “clean.” It’s like a bad guy in a badly-written movie naming his biggest, strongest henchman “tiny.” Because tax collectors were the most despised people, collaborating with the brutal pagan Roman occupying force to extract as much money from the population as they could. They flagrantly violated both ritual and ethical law. But this time, Zacchaeus’ name is not merely ironic; it is also the most hopeful kind of foreshadowing.
Luke doesn’t tell us what motivated Zacchaeus. Maybe nothing more than idle curiosity. All he shows us is the wonderful image of the short man running ahead and climbing a tree just to see Jesus. Not to challenge Jesus or ask him a question, not to seek healing or forgiveness, just to see. He may have laboring under an inaccurate description of who Jesus was, and he certainly couldn’t have understood the fullness of who he was, or the consequences of encountering him. And he might have been waiting up there a long time, since in the ages before fast communication and accurate timekeeping, the only way to be sure you were going to be in the right place at the right time was to get there as early as possible.
Zacchaeus’ life was a public ethical disaster. He was a parasite, a sycophant, an extortionist. His home was, symbolically and in fact, an epicenter of sin. But Zacchaeus was curious, and he was willing to make an effort, and while that’s not exactly faith, it’s enough for Jesus to work with. And what work he did!
Without saying a word to him — simply by entering his home — Jesus completely transformed Zacchaeus. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” That’s about as profound a change as anyone shows in scripture. He’s right up there with Saul the persecutor becoming Paul the apostle. He even volunteers the correct multiple of repayment laid out in the law, in the book of Exodus, showing he’s not just feeling generous, but also choosing to submit to the law of his people, the code that binds them to God and to each other, and gives them an identity and a heritage.
The scene is only shocking if we forget that God does this sort of thing again and again in scripture. As Richard Rohr points out, “The path of descent, or the pattern of falling upward, is found throughout the Bible. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is thrown into the well by his own brothers and then rescued. The prophet Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern by the civil leaders after he preaches retreat and defeat, and he is rescued by a eunuch. Jonah is swallowed by a whale and then spit up on the right shore. The people of Israel are sent into exile in Babylon and then released and allowed to return home by Cyrus, the King of Persia. Enslavement and exodus is the great lens through which Jewish history is read.”
Remembering this, today’s Gospel goes from exceptional to inevitable. And the story also foreshadows the last and greatest event of enslavement and exodus, the one carried out by God himself, the death of Jesus, his descent among the dead, his liberation of the souls held captive there and his own triumphal resurrection— which in turn foreshadows our own.
So now of course you see why I make such a big deal about the Eucharist. Because we don’t wait until the end of our natural lives to encounter Jesus and his transformational power. The Church has always taught that Jesus is really and physically present in the Eucharist. Quite unlike Zacchaeus and everyone else who met Jesus in the Gospels, we have a decent idea of who he is. And while we might take comfort, or even pride, in the biblical image of our bodies as temples, we should also remember the saying: Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
These temples have some dark corners, places we might not be quite ready to be illuminated by the light of Christ. Unlike Zacchaeus, we can choose to invite him in, or not. But that’s the extent of our control. Jesus might just make himself at home within us, and start rearranging the furniture and hauling out the trash.
If a tax collector can show adequate hospitality for the Lord, all of us can, too. So prepare for Jesus with honest prayer and self-examination. You probably already know some of what needs to change to make his stay as fruitful and harmonious as possible, and that’s good work. But just like hosting a dinner, you always discover there’s more to be done than you thought at first. But this time, Jesus will do the rest. Jesus will seek us out and save us. Today salvation has come to all of us.